OVERNIGHT REVIEW: L.A. Philharmonic’s “Casual Friday” concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall

By Robert D. Thomas

Music Critic

Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Valley Tribune/Whittier Daily
News

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Los Angeles
Philharmonic; Gustavo Dudamel, conductor

Brahms: Academic
Festival Overture;
Symphony No. 3

Friday, March 4, 2011 Walt Disney Concert Hall

Next concerts:
Today at 8 p.m. Sunday at 2 p.m. The program will be the third symphonies of
Polish composer Henryk Grecki and Brahms.

Info:
www.laphil.com

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One of the joys of attending a live concert as opposed to
listening to a recording is spontaneity. A recording is a snapshot of one
performance, frozen in time; each time you listen it’s the same thing, however
excellent. When you attend live concerts, each hearing is unique, even if the
program contains the same works.

 

Consider last night’s “Casual Friday” concert by the Los
Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall as a prime example. Eight
times during the indoor season, the orchestra radically changes the concert
format. The musicians wear casual clothes, which range from chic to VERY
casual. The audience follows the “casual” dress motif but since this is
Southern California, there’s not a great difference between a “Casual Friday”
concert and “normal” performances.

 

By now, the program format has been established: an
orchestra member gives a brief talk about what he or she does, the orchestra
plays one or two pieces, and the evening concludes with a 15-minute
question-and-answer session with the featured orchestra speaker, the “Upbeat
Live” (i.e., formal preconcert lecture) speaker, and the conductor, followed by
drinks with orchestra members in the downstairs caf.

 

The target audience is people who don’t usually attend
concerts, although many who come are “veterans” who just like the format; the
concept’s popularity can be deduced from the fact that it has grown from four
concerts to eight (in two series) in a short span of years.

 

How well “Casual Friday” works depends, in large measure, on
the introductory speaker and the Q&A session. When Music Director Gustavo
Dudamel is the conductor, as was the case last night, well over half the
capacity crowd stays for the feedback session; last night we learned, among other
things, that this week marks the first time that the Venezuelan maestro has
conducted Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 in performance.

 

The introducer last night was Mark Kashper, a
33-year-veteran of the second violin section, who used a wicked sense of humor
during his 10 minutes to impart a great deal of information about playing
second fiddle, while subtly twitting both Dudamel and the Phil’s management. If
Kashper ever gets tired of playing violin, he’s got a potential second career
in stand-up comedy.

 

Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 is the least played of the composer’s
four symphonies. It’s the shortest of the quartet but it packs a lot into 35
minutes and Dudamel and the orchestra gave us a lot to think about last night.

 

After his rapid-fire concept of the second symphony last
week, Dudamel returned to his expansive mood for the third, but the tempos –
while relaxed — never bogged down. He was in his “shape every phrase” mode,
playing off the orchestra’s sumptuous strings against the mellow woodwinds and
brass throughout the performance. Yet in the third-movement Scherzo, Dudamel
got the strings to play briefly with a leaner, tauter sound that provide a
highly effective contrast to the “Andante” second movement. The piece is framed
by a dramatic theme, which in the final movement concluded with a serene
majesty. I’ve never been as moved by a performance of this symphony as I was
last night.

 

Even for a “Casual Friday” concert, a 35-minute symphony is
too short to stand on its own. Last night was supposed to open with Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Haydn. However,
as most everyone knows, the Phil’s “Brahms Unbound” festival has undergone
significant alterations since it was announced 15 months ago.

 

This week’s concerts were supposed to feature the world
premiere of Peter Lieberson’s Percussion Concerto, but the composer died before
completing it. The substituted piece for this weekend’s other concerts was
Symphony No. 3 (Symphony of Sorrowful
Songs)
by Polish composer Henryk Grecki, but because that work is 55
minutes long, the Haydn Variations
were jettisoned for last night.

 

Now, one might think that this would have been a good night
to bring back the Tragic Overture, which
was supposed to be played last week but was dropped due to the complicated
setup for last week’s performance of Glorious
Percussion.
Apparently not.

 

Thus, for the second consecutive “Casual Friday” concert and
the third time in four weeks (plus Cameron Carpenter’s organ transcription
earlier this month), patrons got yet another run-through of Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture. The
performance was first-rate and, in the Q&A afterward, Dudamel skillfully danced
around the first question: why some in the audience were hearing the same
overture for the third time. Dudamel noted that, since the overture was written
in between the time when the second and third symphonies were composed, its
inclusion made musical sense. Perhaps, although I’m not sure the questioner was
appeased.

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Hemidemisemiquavers:

To at least two critics, Mark Swed in the Los Angeles Times (LINK) and Brian in Out West Arts (LINK), the performance of
Grecki’s Third was special. That’s not a surprise in the case of Mark, who has
been very positive in his reviews about the first three weeks of “Brahms
Unbound,” but Brian, who has been quite negative about Dudamel’s Brahms’ interpretations
up to this point, even liked Dudamel’s concept of the Brahms third.

If you’re coming tonight or tomorrow, be advised that the
order of the two pieces has been switched, wisely in my opinion.

The Brahms survey concludes next week with the Double
Concerto featuring soloists Renaud and Gautier Capuon and the fourth symphony. (LINK)

The June 5 concert is also the final segment of the Phil’s
inaugural “LA Phil LIVE” series; the concert will be telecast live to more than
450 theaters throughout the United States and Canada (LINK). No word to this
point whether the series will continue next season; owing to scheduling quirks,
there only a few Dudamel concerts that seem appropriate for this format and
three of them come in the first five weeks of the season. I wonder whether
Frank Gehry’s staging of Mozart’s Don
Giovanni
or the world premiere of John Adams’ new oratorio, The Gospel According to the Other Mary, will
be chosen; those would be gutsy calls for a still-new series.

It’s interesting to speculate on how Mark Kashper’s witty talk
from last night would translate to a TV audience. Well, I should imagine

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(c) Copyright 2011, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Portions may be quoted with attribution.